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Lady Grantham and Lord Grantham dance in the ballroom of Downton Focus Features

Downton Abbey will always be bizarre

Remembering how the period drama built to its big-screen success

It’s been nearly a decade since Downton Abbey first aired — on ITV in the UK and PBS in the United States — and after six seasons and five Christmas specials, the saga has ended. The new theatrical continuation, which set box office records for studio Focus Features with a $31 million opening weekend, takes place a full 15 years after the series’ premiere. The various changes in the interim, both the personal evolutions and the larger social tides they’ve been set against, are palpable, but this new film feels most honest in the way it carries forward the show’s tonal and thematic bipolarity.

Downton Abbey has always been a ridiculous soap opera. Lest we forget, the first season is framed between the sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak of World War I, while the second season turns the ornate Yorkshire Abbey into a war hospital. An early episode even features topsy-turvy hijinks involving the prim-and-proper Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) having to hide the body of an exotic foreign price who inexplicably dies in her bed — Pamuk, we barely knew ye. For all its characters’ stiff-upper-lip and Jane Austen-esque repression, the aristocratic period piece has always been one for eruptions, each nestled between the kind of quaint, British countryside drama you’d expect from Paddington or Peter Rabbit.

This whiplash, however, is part of its charm. For every time the cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) worries about the soufflé not setting in time, there’s a murder subplot wherein the Earl’s soft-spoken valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) might end up death row once again. For every time head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) complains about someone emptying his wastepaper basket without his permission, there’s the sudden, gruesome death of a main character. Or — my personal favourite — the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) violently vomiting blood at a chatty dinner party.

a man in a hat walks down the path away from Downton Abbey Focus Features

More pertinently, for every main character who pushes back against the rigid social hierarchy, there’s an aesthetic decision that makes the hideous, classist status quo seem alluring. After all, it wouldn’t be Downton Abbey if the Crawleys weren’t indulging in their sprawling mansion and enjoying the kitchen delicacies, as the oppressed servants toiled away out of sight, stuck in Lisa Simpson purgatory as they pushed back against the system forever and ever.

Downton’s quaintness and gaudy melodrama collide headfirst in its movie adaptation, helmed by series finale director Michael Engler and written by showrunner Julian Fellowes (who also happens to be a Conservative member of the British Parliament). After the 2015 series finale hinted at the arrival of social evolution, not very much has actually changed since we last saw our characters. Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) has gone from demurely accepting her position to finally being bold and outgoing enough to voice her disapproval. She wishes for a better world, but 15 years later, she’s still Mrs. Patmore’s assistant, and still only functions as a character within the context of the Crawley household.

The closeted Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), once the scheming heart-and-soul of the show’s nastier segments, has found his new calling as the Abbey’s head butler, replacing the proud, recently retired Mr. Carson, who yearns to return to his position. Even Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the Crawleys’ left-wing, Irish driver who married into the family, has settled into his position within the English aristocracy, and he no longer seems to question it. His allegiance now lies with the Crawley family, and by proxy, with maintaining the premise of Downton.

When the King and Queen announce their arrival, the stage is set for challenging these status quos. Though would it truly be Downton if the story featured some sort of radical change, rather than quirky character melodrama set against the idea of change?

Mr. Molesley stands with a tray of champagne in front of a portrait of a thinking man in Downton Abbey Focus Features

The film re-creates the series’ opening segment, with the familiar strings of John Lunn’s Did I Make the Most of Loving You? in tow. The return to Downton is reminiscent of how the Fantastic Beasts movies try (and fail) to make us feel every time they cut back to Hogwarts, blissfully unaware that it was not the walls that gave the castle its magic, but the people within them. Here, the familiar characters of Downton remain, and so the nostalgia hits particularly hard for long-time fans. But the characters’ very presence is bittersweet; we’re revisiting old friends, but these are people whose relationships are predicated on a class system that keeps them fundamentally at odds, despite their apparent camaraderie. Even the film seems to raise the question: can housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Lady Mary really be friends?

Revisiting Downton as we knew it means revisiting fan favorites locked within a vertical power structure. The show’s construction is predicated upon that very imbalance; the film’s most hilarious segments involve the ever-anxious Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) growing sweaty and short of breath each time he comes close to serving royalty — but we constantly root for him to succeed at serving the King and Queen. If characters ever moved on and left the power structure of Downton behind, they would leave the show itself. And so, familiar faces re-appearing in the film means a return to familiar social ills; the more we want of Downton Abbey, the more we ask that its characters never move on in any meaningful way.

The plot of the film, as far as the servants are concerned, revolves around who actually gets to serve the royals on their visit. Will it be the King and Queen’s kitchen staff, set to take over Downton like an invading force? Or will the Downton house prevail and manage to maintain its honor by, well, serving at the foot of power? Despite these monarchy-fawning overtones, it’s this very tension between the servants being pushed out of their positions of servitude, and finding autonomy within them, that makes scenes in the basement levels of the household burst with fervor.

Engler’s shots hold for lengthy periods of time, as the camera dodges and dips between the kitchen’s non-stop hustle and bustle, making Downton feel more alive than it ever has (much more so than its gilded upper echelons). The film moves skillfully between subplots, often without cutting away, as it provides each and every character with some form of final conflict, followed by final closure. Save, perhaps, for the Earl himself, who seems calmly resigned to oncoming economic upheaval — should it ever arrive. His daughters Mary and Edith (Laura Carmichael) certainly want to move forward with the rest of the world, but the institution that is Downton, represented by their witty grandmother the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), makes a case for sticking around all on its own.

Daisy Mason and Mrs. Patmore drink tea and chop vegetables in the downstairs kitchen of Downton Focus Features

The Countess’ mile-a-minute sarcasm would not work without someone for her to turn her nose up at. The driveway approach to Downton, seen through Carson’s eyes as he reminisces about centuries of servitude, would not seem nearly as alluring to him were Downton sold off as a school. The very opening theme would not feel complete without the little bell chime at the start, as the masters in the upper house ring for their servants. The non-stop energy of the lower house would cease to exist without the mad scramble to serve.

It’s also this very ugliness that allows for Downton Abbey’s constant tonal mismatch — an attractive hallmark of the series. Over the course of the show, lofty melodrama like plotting a miscarriage, or rape-revenge in the servants’ quarters, often carries the same dramatic weight as silly squabbles over whether a character in the upper house is wearing the right kind of tuxedo for the seventeenth course of dinner. The dissonance between the series’ two kinds of drama speaks volumes, perhaps unintentionally, about what truly matters to each strata of the household. However, in the film, while this disconnect still exists, the dynamic is reversed: the goings on in the kitchen have little to do with violence or deep emotional wounds, and all to do with petty minutiae — minutiae that matters to the characters, of course. The servants cheekily double-crossing the royal household staff takes up much of the film’s runtime. Meanwhile, an assassination attempt on the King’s life comes and goes within a single scene. Very few characters even hear about it.

Despite a handful of characters verbally disagreeing with the aristocracy (and with the monarchy), the film continues the show’s penchant for visually fetishizing them. However, the film also zeroes on in the beauty of freedom as it exists outside this specific social context. Thomas Barrow, for the first time, finds himself surrounded by gay men at an illicit establishment. He dances long into the night, as his face lights up at the mere thought of personal liberation. It’s a beautiful moment, and despite this oppression being framed as something far outside the film’s primary power structures (the monarchy, the class system), it not only gives Thomas’ story a sense of hope on the horizon, but adds to the overall texture of the film, which revels — at least verbally — in the pull-and-push of progress as an all-permeating force.

Change is no doubt on the horizon for these characters. It always has been, and they often disagree about what it means or how to adapt to it. It’s a hopeful notion, though one that can’t help but feel fundamentally at odds with what Downton Abbey is at its core: a hilarious, decadent fantasy that views the grotesqueness of the past through rose-tinted glasses.

Downton Abbey is now out in theaters.


Siddhant is an actor, independent filmmaker, television writer and freelance film critic. He lives in Mumbai, New York and online.